Hoka shoes have been around for over a year now. I thought I’d let the dust settle and see what reviews emerged from the internet before trying some. I bought a pair of Mafate’s, the trail shoe version; which essentially have more aggressive tread that their Bondi road version. I tearfully handed over £117, the most I have ever paid for shoes +£40 and left the shop with a shoebox the size that you would normally expect to see hiking boots in.
The first thing you think of when you see them, is that they look hideous. There’s no other word for them. The super-size sole, their unique selling point, makes you look like either:
1) Someone trying to correct a height deficiency
2) A Goth/Emo wearing their trademark platforms
3) A runner trying out the latest fad in shoes
4) Someone wearing those ‘toning/fat burning’ (allegedly) MBT shoes
I’ll put myself forward for number 3. Like every other runner on the planet it seems, I’ve also read Born to Run, which is essentially several hundred pages of Barefoot Running hard-sell. The world has been carried along on that publicity wave, and Vibram (who make the 5-finger ‘barefoot’ shoes) getting very rich. You are getting about 80% less shoe technology and materials, and paying about 30% more in cost. Go figure that out? As you can guess, I wasn’t sucked in by the barefoot revolution. I know several ultra runners who broke fifth metatarsals as a result of wearing them. That’s of course due to being over ambitious and doing too many miles too soon, not any issue with the Vibram’s. I don’t have the time or the inclination to go back to running 1 mile, and building it up again, or relish the prospect of tapping out a fast cadence short-stride on asphalt/tarmac in an effort to minimise the impact from having no cushioning. Even if I could get past all that, I can’t wear them, as I’ve an 8mm leg length difference which has to be corrected with an full shoe orthotic, which don’t by design lend themselves to ‘toe-shoes’. Anyway, I don’t want to turn this post into a barefoot running bash. If they work for you, great, but my knees are asking (well, creaking and screaming) for more cushioning, not less.
So, fast forward to the complete antithesis of barefoot running, the Hokas. You view the shoes and assume they will be heavy. They’re not, they are in fact lighter than many trail shoes. The EVA they use in the sole is around 30% lighter that the type normally used, the advertising blurb will tell you. You watch the promo videos and see the cushioning compress 2 or more centimetres as you run downhill, absorbing a lot of impact. The shoes are very much sold on the downhill advantages I think.
Trying them on for the first time, you see that your feet do recess into the shoe further than you would think, and you are not perched on all of the externally visible cushioning. This aid’s stability, as the first thing a trail runner would think is “these shoes are going to result in a turned ankle after 5 minutes” as the ride is so high. The sizing comes out that you need about half a size larger than usual, especially because the toe box is too shallow. This is a design flaw I think, and needs to be addressed in a future version. After a marathon or ultra distance race, the top of couple of my toes gets sore, and this never happens with any other shoe. Another problem is the tongue is too short. If you want to use the extra lace hole near the ankle, then the laces struggle to sit on the tongue and can even slip off! They need to be an extra 0.5 to 1cm longer.
Now, to the performance. They do feel very cushioned as you would expect, and when run down a hill a smile creeps across your face as you bounce down. I bounced down a hill about 3 times the speed of a chap wearing Vibram’s in a race yesterday, somewhat smugly I’ll admit. Running down a rocky trail you just have to trust the shoes. The cushioning just soaks up and compresses on the rocks as you run down, so being confident is the key. Running downhill slowly and gingerly would be a disadvantage; you would not put enough weight on the shoe to compress/wrap over the stones, and could suffer due to the higher ride height. As it is, I descend very fast in them, and they really excel in this area.
The shoes are shaped a little like the MBT’s in that you roll forward as you run, reducing some knee movement. This is noticeable and you use muscles that you don’t normally use. The top of my quad’s are worked out harder than normal. My feet and knees finish a race in great condition, so they are doing the job I bought them for.
As far as stability is concerned, are they are stable as traditional minimal cushioning trail shoe? Simple answer is no. I very rarely roll my ankle wearing traditional trail shoes anymore, but in Hoka’s on very rough uneven ground my ankles have sometimes just started to roll. I’ve always caught it just in time, and not done any damage, but I’m aware of the possibility. Furthermore contouring the side of steep hill, where both ankles and turned out one way or another is considerably more uncomfortable in Hokas if these is a reasonable distance to cover. The overstrecthed tendon’s in the ankles start to complain. Not that you’d ever consider these shoes for fell racing, but if you did, forget it.
The grip on the shoes is ok, but nothing special. I ran up a very steep concrete track on a farm yesterday and struggled for grip, then side-stepped onto the grass and regained traction just fine, so it’s very much surface dependant. So, there may be more sole-surface area in contact with the ground, because of the larger footprint, but the fairly tame tread pattern and small depth of the triangular rubber studs is a disadvantage, especially when climbing steeply on your toes.
So, in summary, these shoes do the job that I ask, which is to supply enough cushioning for my knees to avoid funding the lifestyle of more orthopaedic surgeons. The grin factor of blazing (well, bouncing) down a hill is hugely entertaining. The shoes need more room in the toe area, and an extra 2mm on the studs. The overall stability because of the ride height is much better than you would expect, but nevertheless something you need to be aware of. Styling – just be prepared to answer a lot of questions whenever you are racing, and don’t buy the bright green ones!
Cost UK: £117
Sent on: 8 August 2011, 6.22 pm BST
Posted By: Paul Bateson
Good review and your comments are what I suspected, (even the barefoot running ones). I just don’t see these as a trail shoe, maybe a marathon plus road shoe where pounding along on tarmac needs a bit of cushioning but as for trails, I would be worried about tripping up or getting jammed between rocks. They may be good for plodding across deserts though, they would probably work like a camels foot, maybe ok on snow as well, save you buying snow shoes.